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At a gala before the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's season-opening classical concert Saturday, the chairman of the orchestra society board announced the annual fund drive had raised a record $2.35 million.

John Reinhold praised the community's "overwhelming support." then the orchestra, entering the second year of a three-year contract that has calmed a troubled organization, performed laudably under outgoing Music Director Maximiano Valdes.

But the good feeling in Kleinhans Music Hall concealed a bothersome fact: Although the Philharmonic has maintained a high level of artistic performance and revenues are on the rise, the orchestra remains stuck in red ink. For the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, the orchestra ran a deficit of $300,000 to $350,000, "about the same as last year's," Executive Director Joseph E. Goodell said this week.

The accumulated deficit stands at "just under $4 million," Goodell said. That includes an unfunded pension liability of nearly $2 million, which was kept off the books until last season.

"The two biggest pieces are the pension liability and a loan from a local foundation," he said.

A small committee of board members is weighing how to attack the long-standing debt, Goodell added.

"We're working on possible ways of dealing with the pension, but we don't have any solution we can point to and get all excited about yet," he said.

"The money picture is troublesome," said Mark Jones, president of the Buffalo Musicians Association, which represents Philharmonic players. The pension debt "is a giant albatross," Jones added. "It makes me nervous, although not to the point of gloom and doom yet."

In fact, there still are reasons to be optimistic about the Philharmonic's long-term prospects.

Although several concerts fell short of budgeted revenues and marketing costs for the 1996-97 season overshot the target, single-ticket sales were up 50 percent and subscription sales 10 percent from a year earlier.

The annual fund drive headed by G. Wayne Hawk exceeded the previous year's total by 17 percent.

Musicians' pay will improve slightly this season, which will run for 35 weeks -- one more than last year.

"We're going to roll out the heavy guns and sell more tickets. Then we'll be starting a new fund drive in a couple of months," Goodell said.

The musicians' faith in Goodell, a former corporate executive who came out of retirement to run the Philharmonic without pay, has not wavered, Jones said.

"The up side, if there is one, is that a guy worth millions is in the executive director's chair," Jones added. "That gives me hope that things can turn around. If someone else was sitting there, I'd probably jump out the window."

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